Gluten-free trends, Celiac disease diagnoses spike, potential link to environmental factors
Published: Monday, October 1, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 12:10
When senior Heather Knabe, president of Gluten-Free at UD, was diagnosed with celiac disease, she was not sick. In fact, she said she was not showing any symptoms at all.
“The reason I got tested was because my uncle has celiac disease also,” Knabe said. “My family participated in a study for the University of Maryland about how it goes through families, and it got caught early. I was really lucky.”
Knabe said that after a doctor did a bone scan, she was told she had osteoporosis and was losing significant bone mass at age 10.
“Looking back at pictures of myself growing up, I did have mottling of my teeth,” she said. “I was a chunky child but I wasn’t sick really or anything, so I didn’t really have the classic symptoms.”
Knabe is just one of the 2 million Americans who have been diagnosed with celiac disease in the past decade or so, or roughly, one in 133 people, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. People with the disease cannot process gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
This number does not include the growing number of Americans who have been diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition that health professionals suggest may be the most common gluten-related disorders but whose prevalence is unknown as of yet, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Sue Snider, a food safety and nutrition specialist at the university, said gluten allergies are also on the rise.
“Allergies are always caused by a protein in the food,” Snider said. “It’s the body’s way of saying, ‘Oh, I need to worry about this product.’ Usually, this is a good thing but with protein, a problem.”
This allergy makes the consumer sensitive to gluten and causes the immune system to attack the lining of the bowel when the allergen comes into contact with the small intestine. Symptoms include loss of weight, constipation and bloating, but vary from children to adults.
Gluten sensitivity, however, is thought to be the immune system’s response to gluten, but not an autoimmune condition. It does not cause intestinal damage, but still is thought to cause symptoms such as joint pain, muscle cramps and gastro-intestinal problems, to name a few. This newly discovered gluten-related disorder has been scantly researched, according to registered dietician Diane McArtor.
The only treatment for either condition is a strict gluten-free diet, according to the NDDIC. This means most pasta, cereal, grain and processed food are off-limits. These products are instead made with rice, corn and potato flour.
“It kind of has interesting social implications,” Knabe said. “My friends will say, ‘Let’s go out to eat,’ and often I won’t come out because of fear from cross-contamination, or they’re going to a place I know isn’t gluten-free friendly.”
This diet is difficult to maintain and can be far more expensive than a “normal” diet due to extra processing. Small amounts of hidden gluten are found in preservatives, modified flour starch and stabilizers made from wheat.
A trip down the snack aisle of Newark Natural Foods shows the expense of gluten-free eating—an 8-ounce bag of gluten-free pretzels costs $8.39, while a similar-sized bag of regular Herr’s pretzels costs $2.79.